By Cailin McKenna and Joe Vitale
Colleges and universities are often seen as Ivory Towers: places where the privileged and educated look down on a world from which they are disconnected.
For some students at Fordham, this separation between academic life and the rest of the world extends far beyond the intellectual and into the psychological, cultural and social.
It is not the walls of the ivy-covered Gothic buildings that students believe are causing a rift, but the black iron gates that enclose our campus.
In a country where the contrast between the “haves” and “have-nots” is constantly becoming sharper, many students are beginning to ask how a life inside the gates of campus adds to that divergence.
This was the topic of a recent forum hosted by the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) on Monday in the Campbell Multipurpose Room, where students tackled these questions through the lens of social justice.
The event focused on the practical uses of the gates, such as student safety and security, but also on the divide the gates can create between Fordham students and the Bronx community.
Students throughout the dialogue were asked to consider how the gates affect life at Fordham: do they create a certain “atmosphere” on Fordham’s sprawling green campus, and, if so, how? Do they impact life at Fordham, and, if so, why?
Yancy Carrasco, GSB ’16, is a diversity peer leader and one of many students trained by OMA to engage the students in a variety of social justice issues.
Carrasco said that the idea for the discussion stemmed from experiences with students who, though they pass through the gates each day, rarely confront their effects on student life.
“This was an opportunity to understand what the gates mean to other students. We have commuters and residents who see the gates every single day, and it’s a part of their Fordham life,” said Carrasco. “And that got us thinking if it affects their actions in terms of interacting with the community. Fordham is not simply everything within these gates, but the Bronx and the greater New York area.”
Carrasco suggested that the dialogue was a way for students to tackle the idea of “exclusivity” and its toll on how we view those outside of our community.
“This was an opportunity to promote inclusiveness, regardless of the gates and guards,” Carrasco said. “Even though we do have this barrier physically and psychologically that exists, what are the different approaches we can take to telling the community that surrounds us that we are here and we care about the space and the people who live here.”
The discussion also tried to confront the perception of Fordham’s campus — often described as an “Oasis in the Bronx” — but from the perspective of those outside the gates.
The 85-acre campus is among the largest privately owned green spaces in New York City — something the university once listed on its “Fordham Facts” webpage.
Still, students questioned the implications of labeling campus as an “oasis.” “An oasis,” they essentially asked, “from what?”
“The gates symbolize a college versus community campus. They separate us from where the security alerts happen,” said Carlos Salazar, FCRH ’17, another diversity peer leader who facilitated the event. “They develop into an us versus them mentality and create a negative stereotype for anyone who isn’t allowed through the gates.”
Students also considered one of Fordham’s mottos: “New York is my campus. Fordham is my school” and its branding compared to other universities in the city.
Some competing institutions, including Columbia University, Pace University, New York University and a number of Colleges of the University of New York, are sprawling campuses that encompass a host of buildings and offices.
Others in the Bronx, including Manhattan College and Lehman College, are also gated campuses that have confined university grounds.
“During the dialogue, I was thinking about how there are students who use Fordham to not have to go into the Bronx at all and just go back and forth to Manhattan,” said Margaret Desmond, FCRH ’16, who attended the event. “There’s a possibility to use the Bronx, to experience the best of it and never have to experience the poverty, the crime and these more negative aspects of the Bronx and people are able to come and hide on campus.”
“This is kind of problematic because you have the community who has to live there full time, and students need to think critically about this if they want to be included in this community,” Desmond added.
This is not to say that gates of campus are not porous, or that students see them that way.
The gates do little to dissuade members of Fordham University from venturing off campus. Many students participate in community service, venture to off-campus restaurants and bars and support businesses in the community, from Fordham Plaza to Arthur Avenue and beyond.
The university also hosts several organizations, such as City Squash, which uses Fordham’s athletic facilities and other programs during the summer where Bronx organizations use the campus grounds.
But, with members of the community required to carry their university identification card at all times while on campus and to surrender it upon the request of university personnel, students feel the need to question its effects on student life.
Another student, Kiera Maloney, FCRH ’17, commented on how the discussion addressed the image of Fordham being a privileged community inside the gates. “As members of this privileged community, it is important to consider how our presence affects the Bronx community, both implicitly and explicitly,” Maloney said.